When the 1995 version of Mortal Kombat hit theaters, we embraced its level of camp, while also appreciating Paul W.S. Anderson’s approach to the material. Yes, surprisingly enough, you can balance the two – even though the PG-13 rating left a few folks disappointed.
But then came Mortal Kombat: Annihilation two years later and…well, that was even more disappointing. And since then, fans have had to turn to the games for their bloody enjoyment, though Mortal Kombat: Legacy did pretty well on the small screen for a while there.
Finally, though, we have Simon McQuoid’s take on Mortal Kombat, which is more in synch with the tone of the games. That means bloodshed, and lots of it, and characters that are ready to fight for the fate of the world. It may be missing the laughs – and fighter development – of the original camp-fest, but it more than makes up for it when it comes to action.
Rather than focus solely on a hero from the game series, we instead get a newcomer – an MMA fighter named Cole Young (Lewis Tan). He’s making ends meet for his family by fighting, and, sadly, losing. However one day, Sub-Zero (a very game Joe Taslim of The Raid fame) comes knocking, and Cole suddenly learns he’s part of a much bigger picture.
This picture includes a hodgepodge of Earth’s mightiest champions, who find themselves going against the deadly Shang Tsung (Chin Han), who has plans for this planet after he takes one more victory in the Mortal Kombat tournament. And…you can pretty much guess the rest.
While some may voice disappointment along the lines of “Who the hell is Cole Young?”, he actually ties into a deeper story surrounding Sub-Zero and his adversary, Scorpion. The beginning of the film introduces him as Hanzo Hasashi (the impressive Hiroyuki Sanada), who has a score to settle when the icy ninja pays his family a visit. It takes a while to get to that point, but the payoff is most certainly worth it when he bellows, “GET OVER HERE!”
In fact, what makes Mortal Kombat click so well this time around is just how loyal it is to its fans. The fights are bloodily satisfying, and even some of the visual effects deliver, particularly with the all-CG Goro, who makes his ’95 counterpart look like a Halloween costume by comparison. There are other interesting moments as well, including one with Kano (Josh Lawson – yes, from Anchorman 2) that practically steals the show.
Where the movie is lacking is with deep character development. We see it in hints here and there, but they’re basically thrown together for the most part in the film’s short but sweet run time. Fortunately, the fighting and effects more than make up for it; and the finale delivers in spades, setting the stage for sequels to come.
McQuoid, making his debut with Kombat, directs with a swift hand. Here and there the camera can be a little jittery at times, however it’s never enough to annoy like, well, Annihilation did. The fights are a lot of fun to watch, with each character true to their game counterparts.
On top of that, Benjamin Wallfisch’s music score is excellent. He not only captures the atmosphere of Mortal Kombat tunes to nearly sheer perfection, but also throws in slight references to George Clinton’s original ’95 banger of a theme.
The acting ensemble is spotty in places. Some performances are forgettable, but then you have Max Huang and Ludi Lin delivering as the combo of Kung Lao and Liu Kang, lighting up the screen. No, literally. Liu practically throws a fireball when he arrives. Although, really, it comes down to Lawson having a field day as Kano, as well as Sanada being amazing as Hanzo/Scorpion. Taslim’s ice cold, too. Again, literally.
It won’t win best game movie of all time honors (I’m still trying to figure how it measures compared to the original film), but Mortal Kombat is quite a bit of fan service. The fights are entertaining once they pick up speed; the music is outstanding; and a good deal of the performances do quite well with the material. Plus there’s also a good set-up here for sequels, which I would most certainly be down for.
It’s hardly a flawless victory, but Mortal Kombat happily dominates your time – and that’s more than what could be said for whatever the hell Annihilation was.
(Mortal Kombat is in theaters now, and is available on-demand on HBOMax as well for the next month.)